DARPA Robotics Challenge powers up

Robots built by 25 teams from around the world will compete to survive in a simulated disaster zone for $3.5 million in prizes.

By Stephen Feller

PAMONA, Calif., June 5 (UPI) -- Rather than a signal to embrace our robot overlords, the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, or DRC, is an opportunity to see how robots will in the future be able to assist in life-threatening situations too dangerous for human first responders.

Over the next two days, 25 teams will send their robots through a series of contests designed to mimic natural and man-made disasters while communication with the robots is hampered in ways similar to what would happen in a real disaster. The teams are competing for $3.5 million in prizes, including $2 million for the winning robot's team.


DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is responsible for finding and developing leading edge technology for the Department of Defense. Its purpose, since President Dwight Eisenhower established it in 1957 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, is to develop advanced technological solutions for the U.S. military.


"Disasters, both natural and man-made, are something we see every year happening throughout the world," Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, said in a news conference in mid-May. "If we could only intervene [with robots], we could mitigate the extent of these disasters," he said.

The DRC was created in 2011 after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan when human responders were unable to investigate the scene because the nuclear contamination was too dangerous. Robots, however, could have accessed the scene, helping victims and possibly mitigating some of the fallout much sooner than humans were able to get there.

The main course of the DRC requires the robots to drive a utility vehicle to a staged disaster scene. Once there, they must open a door, locate and close a valve, cut through a wall, and then handle a surprise task of some sort before clearing rubble and opening a door to exit the scene.

The course, according to the DRC, is based on some of what was faced by human responders to Fukushima -- specifically the things they could not do. Organizers of the competition are making the situation as real as possible to put the 25 teams' robots to the test.


"The robots must somehow communicate information about the world they see in the simulated disaster zone to the human being despite interruptions in communication," Pratt said in a press release. "And the human beings must give commands to the robots to execute at a sufficiently high level that they don't need to micromanage, or tele-op as it's called, each one of the motions that the robots do," he added. "And ... that has to happen despite a large number of dropouts in communication."

The major goal, Pratt explained, is to combine robots' ability to do go places humans cannot with humans' ability to make quick, difficult judgment calls and, hopefully, help people that are in bad situations.

"We are trying to make the world a little bit more robust to disasters that are caused by nature or by [people], and in particular DARPA's job is to make investments in early technology," Pratt said.

All the robot runs will be streaming live, Friday and Saturday, on the DRC website.

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